Work Horses, Thoroughbreds and Doctors

        My recent post on Roarco the pony set me to think about the farm animals when I was a kid.  I didn’t grow up on the farm, but my grandparents had one.  I spent enough time out there to learn a little bit- at least enough to know I’d better study.  It was hard work.

        In many ways, the animals had roles much like doctors.  I turned out to be more of a work horse than a thoroughbred.  Regardless of the task at hand, you could hitch up a workhorse and take care of the daily drudgery.  They were reliable and asked for little.  Like a mutt dog- loyal, predictable, they were natured for long term commitment. 

        On the other hand, the thoroughbreds had their place too.  They were nervous and skittish.  They pranced around and needed all sorts of need of attention, but on race day they could outrun an old workhorse, no doubt about it.  But you know what?  The workhorse seemed happy enough with his lot; just give him an apple every once in a while and he’d go back to the job.  The thoroughbreds were the center of attention, and never satisfied.  If you hitched ’em up to a plow, they’d turn around and look at you as if to say, “Do you know who I am?”

        It’s good we have both.  We used to have a Neurosurgeon who was so darn persnickety you couldn’t stand him more than three minutes.  But, he was talented.  I told my patients we’d better put up with it, ’cause we might need him someday.  After all, you don’t need a Family Neurosurgeon.  On the other hand, if you had to plow the South Forty with the S.O.B. every spring, there’d be one dead show pony to account for.

        I realized a long time ago I was no star.  I was in the top third of the class but several were clearly brighter.  There was one in particular they still talk about at Sandhills today.  His name was Tom Bailey. I was good for the 92nd or so, but this cat made the 99th percentile on every Board Test we ever took.  And he was a nice fellow too.  Wound up in Massachusetts doing cancer research.  I hope he finds some answers, and he is the type who might just do it.

        One day I asked the good Lord why I couldn’t be that smart.  The answer was “I wanted you to be smart enough to be able to talk to people like Tom Bailey, but dumb enough to be a country doctor.”  I didn’t question  it any more.  To stay in general medicine for a lifetime you gotta be a little dumb, a stubborn old work horse, or both.

        I will tell you one more part to this story, though.  Several years ago, a favorite patient was dying.  You can tell the end is near ’cause all the consultants drop off the case.  It is just you and your patient and the family.  (And nowadays Hospice is there too, bless their souls.) 

        This patient’s brother was a big wig at Sandhills before he retired.  Every so often we would share Tom Bailey stories.  We agreed he was one of the brightest med students to ever come through Sandhills School of Medicine.

        After my patient died, a package came in the mail.  It was marked: Photos: DO NOT BEND.  I opened it up.  Inside was a photo of me and my patient when I made hospital rounds one day.  It was inscribed by the brother: 

        “To Sandhill’s best Doctor, thanks for taking care of my brother.”  It hangs in my study today, and is one of my most prized possessions.

        That picture beats the h&## out of any apple those old work horses ever got.  Doctoring is hard work at times, but days like that make me ready to hitch up to the plow Monday morning and go at it again.

Dr. B

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8 Comments on “Work Horses, Thoroughbreds and Doctors”

  1. pandemonic Says:

    What a great story!

    You never know how you’re going to look to the rest of the world, so it’s best to be on your good behavior all the time. A person will remember true kindness far longer than a slight. At least I do!

  2. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Pande,

    The old what goes around comes around is true over and over, huh?

    Dr. B

  3. Cindy Carter Says:

    From one work horse to another, I think you are plenty smart! It takes perseverence to continue to be a GP. You have to know a little bit about everything. I am the same way. I know enough, or can learn enough to tell you if you need a specialist or if I can take care of the issue.

    I wouldn’t want to be the “center of attention” I am grateful for all those work horses out there.

    Of course, when I had to have my ACL replaced two years ago, the Ortho guy had the worst bedside manner of anyone I had every met. But, I didn’t want him to be my friend, I wanted him to fix me and he did.

    Then again, the heart surgeon that took care of my husband was an humble and kind man. I needed him to be that way because I was afraid and he knew it. So, thoroughbreds can some times become plow horses too.

  4. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Cindy,

    You are right. My friend Tom Bailey was both. I guess it is sort of like really rich people. They don’t have anything to prove, and don’t feel the need to. Tom Bailey was REALLY smart- photographic memory, but I never heard him brag one time. He was shy and humble.

    I guess I was kinda smart too, though. He became a good friend I made a B+ in Biochem partly ’cause he helped me study.

    Dr. B

  5. pharmacykid Says:

    I’m guessing you watched the Belmont Stakes yesterday, or was it a complete coincidence that you posted about horses right after a horse race?

    Horses are so powerful. I look at them and see their rippling muscles under the skin. They are beautiful creatures.

  6. amberfireinus Says:

    Being a doctor is far more than what one learns in school. Alot of it is knowing how to listen. Some of it is about being determined not to let the little details pass.

    I don’t know if you have read about the cardiologist who tells the patients that they are doing well. It boosts their own mental state and helps them heal.

    Beside manner is a whole lot of the package. Caring about your patients and being on their “team of health and wellbeing” is where the REAL talent lies. The rest… well they have a place in this world, but they aren’t what being a doctor is all about is it?

    Remember that Doc.

  7. drtombibey Says:

    pharmacy kid,

    I missed the race, but got to thinking about the old farm days. I think horses are beautiful, too. I remember the first time I saw Secretariat on the cover of S.I. Everyone knew the animal was special.

    Dr. B

  8. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Amber,

    I agree with you. Caring is the whole ticket. I still study the books, ’cause I want to do right by my people. What you said about being determined not to let the small details get by you is so true. The trick is to do it even if you are tired or sick yourself. To put your patient above your own needs on those days is being a pro. (Or at least trying to be.)

    My philosophy is I tell my patients if I can’t figure out what to do to help, I’ll try to someone who can.

    Dr. B


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